Ask CUF: Am I Obliged to Give My Tithes to My Parish?

Does the Church have any guidelines regarding the recipients of tithes? For example, can I give to Catholic organizations other than my parish if I think they are more effectively spreading the Gospel? Am I obliged to give any of my tithes to my parish?

The tithe (Old English for “tenth”; simply decima in Latin) is originally a tax of goods taken for purposes related to worship. It is distinct from almsgiving, which is charitable—and at times penitential— material assistance given to the poor and expected by Christ (Mt. 6:2–4; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2462). Abraham gave a tithe of his war gains to Melchizedek, “priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18). Later, when the twelve tribes of Israel moved into the Promised Land, the tribe of Levi, dedicated by God to the priesthood, was not given a part of the land but was sustained by tithes from the other tribes (Num. 18:21).

The support of the priesthood by the community carried over to the Christian church. It doesn’t appear that there was a tithe at first: “They had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). But whether there was a strict tithe or not, St. Paul reserved from the Old Testament the right of the priesthood to receive support (1 Cor. 9:9– 14; 1 Tim. 5:18). Later, in places where the Church grew in stability and size as an institution, there was the widespread utilization of tithes for material support. In some countries, civil law recognized the right of the Church to tax the faithful and even administered a church tax, some to this day. The word “tithe” came to denote the tax, even if it wasn’t 10 percent.

In any case, the Church has always maintained the right to demand of the faithful whatever is needed to sustain divine worship, support her clergy, and engage in apostolic work. The faithful, on their part, have always had a corresponding duty.

Thus, the Church includes in her list of precepts “the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability” ( Catechism, no. 2043) and legislates in her canon law that “Christ’s faithful have the obligation to provide for the needs of the Church, so that the Church has available to it those things which are necessary for divine worship, for apostolic and charitable work and for the worthy support of its
ministers” (canon 222, §1).

Stewardship

While the obligation to give material support is universal, there is no longer mention of a tithe. In English-speaking countries, at least, support is voluntary, “each according to his own ability.” This brings up the concept of stewardship, which, it can be argued, is a New Testament manifestation of the principles of tithing. Stewardship is the giving of our time, talent, and treasure to our church (local and Universal) in recognition that everything
belongs to God.

A steward is a person who manages property or financial affairs for someone else. In ancient kingdoms, stewards ran the country in the absence of the king (or even when the king was present), but, obviously, the steward did not own the kingdom. In Sacred Scripture we find many examples of stewards being placed over the affairs of their masters. Abram’s steward was Eliezer, a slave born into Abram’s household. Were Abram not to have offspring, Eliezer would have received his freedom and inherited all of Abram’s possessions (cf. Gen. 15:2–3). Pharaoh made Joseph steward over the land of Egypt, even though Joseph was not of the royal family and would not inherit the throne. Because of Joseph’s wisdom and discretion, Pharaoh entrusted the entire kingdom to his care: “You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you” (Gen. 41:40).

From the beginning of time, God entrusted the earth to all men as stewards of its resources (Gen. 1:26–28; Catechism, no. 2402). No individual has exclusive title to the office of steward, while each person has opportunities and resources that others do not have. This implies a collaborative effort in bringing about good from the resources and talents God entrusts to His people.

When the stewardship model of giving is compared with Old Testament tithing, it is apparent that with stewardship the faithful have a greater say in who receives the material support. A steward, who has been entrusted with responsibility, is by implication capable of making prudential judgments. At the same time, the steward must also remember he works for God; he must maintain God’s priesthood and God’s Church.

Parish and Church

However, it may sometimes seem that the parish is not the wisest choice for giving funds. Can the faithful support the priesthood and the Church without giving to the parish?

The parish is the place and community where the People of God come together as members of the Church. Pope John Paul II, in an address to parish priests, spoke of the presence of Christ at the parish level. Present most especially in the Blessed Sacrament, Christ is also present when the priest acts in persona Christi while administering any of the sacraments. Further, Christ is present through preaching and guidance of the faithful, tasks integral to a priest’s vocation. And then the Holy Father pointed out that “the presence of Christ, which thus takes place in a daily and ordinary way, makes the parish an authentic community of the faithful” (Address of John Paul II to the Plenary Session of the Congregation for the Clergy, November 23, 2001).

A subsequent instruction to priests fleshes out the pope’s words. The characteristics of a parish make it clear that it is a part of the Church:

A parish is a specific community of the christifideles, established on a stable basis within a particular Church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a parish priest as its own shepherd under the authority of the diocesan bishop. Thus, the entire life of the parish, as well as the significance of its apostolic commitments to society, have to be understood and lived in terms of an organic communion between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood; of fraternal and dynamic collaboration between pastors and faithful, with absolute respect for the rights, duties and functions of both, and mutual recognition of their respective proper competence and responsibility. (Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community)

Here is a “fraternal and dynamic collaboration” that emphasizes the relationship between the ministerial and baptismal priesthood. The precept “to provide for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability” easily harmonizes with this collaboration. It is also within this community that problems and disagreements are to be addressed. Clearly the Church does not envision a “pray, pay, and obey” attitude of the Christian faithful. Nor does she relieve the parish priests of the obligation to provide for the needs of the faithful as shepherds and as cooperators of the bishop: “In exercising this care of souls, pastors and their assistants should so fulfill their duty of teaching, sanctifying and governing that the faithful and the parish communities will truly realize that they are members both of the diocese and of the universal Church” (Pope Paul VI, Christus Dominus, Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church).

Pastors will be the first to admit that they come up short in teaching, sanctifying, and governing. Too many have parishioners who do not, through their participation in the parish, experience the realization that they are members of both the diocese and the Universal Church. At the same time, the priesthood does endure, the sacraments are administered, and the liturgy is celebrated. And since God’s people have the continual obligation to support His priests and the community, whether through laws of tithing or practices of stewardship, it would seem that withdrawal of that support would occur only in
the most extreme circumstances.

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